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Memoir In Progress
 Down the Braided River: My Journey as a Deaf Refugee

Forced to flee with his family from Bhutan at the age of seven, Bhawani grew up in a refugee camp in Nepal where he remained for two decades until his family was resettled in New Hampshire. Bhawani is repeatedly tested by trauma and hardship. In New Hampshire, he faced additional challenges to bridge the Bhutanese, Nepali, American, hearing, and Deaf cultures and languages to help himself and other Deaf refugees succeed.

Bhawani takes us on his remarkable journey DOWN THE BRAIDED RIVER, through ethnic cleansing, flood, fire, earthquake, hunger, hearing loss, language deprivation, and discrimination, seeing through his eyes the intersections of the cultures of Bhutan, Nepal, and America, hearing and Deaf. He shows us the struggles of a refugee with a disability, of being Deaf in a hearing world, and in particular the magnified obstacles faced by those who are refugees AND Deaf. 

Refugees with disabilities are often overlooked and their stories untold. Bhawani's memoir is the first written by a Deaf refugee, and It's taking a village. Bhawani's preferred languages for effective communication are Nepali and American Sign Languages. With the help of generous volunteer interpreters, Bhawani is telling his story in ASL, interpreted into English, to writer Julia Freeman-Woolpert, in person and via recorded zoom. Bhawani's friends and family are adding their knowledge and memories of events. 

Our Village.

Part 1: Bhutan

Bhawani was born in southern Bhutan in 1985 just as the country was entering into a period of unrest. He enjoyed a happy early childhood in his village of Lalai, on the banks of a braided river, surrounded by his loving family, the abundance of their farm, their village, and their rich Hindu-Nepali culture. He and his brother played in the river, harvested bayar plums from the trees with slingshots, and climbed trees to get pomelos to use as soccer balls. The Bhutanese government restricted the rights of ethnic Nepalis and questioned their citizenship, and soon his people were not allowed to speak their language, practice their religion, or enjoy their culture under the “One Nation, One People” policy. As ethnic cleansing proceeded, law and order deteriorated, his school closed, soldiers came, and the village emptied. Men were arrested and tortured, some disappeared Members of his family were robbed and beaten. Bhawani and his family fled with little more than the clothes on their backs.

Bhawani's family in front of their house in Lalai, Bhutan
Bhawani and his brother playing in the river
Bhawani is teaching a sign language class to children in the refugee camp

Part 2: Nepal

Conditions for the Bhutanese refugees were grim when they arrived in Eastern Nepal. Bhawani’s family went to Goldhap Camp as it was being carved out of the jungle, and slept under a tarp in the pouring rain until they could build a hut. Fires, flood, hunger, disease, lack of access to medical care, and many other hardships punctuated the years at Goldhap. 


Conditions in Goldhap were difficult, and Bhawani faced additional humiliation, discrimination, and language deprivation in a country where deafness is lato, where it’s assumed you’re stupid as well as Deaf, and it brings shame to the family.

When a nonprofit organization established classes in Nepali Sign Language (NSL), he learned quickly and was able to fully communicate again, but only with other Deaf people. Bhawani’s new Deaf friends formed their own social group with picnics, soccer, and mutual aid.

Bhawani overcame obstacle after obstacle. He graduated from Shree Gomendra Multiple College, started a family, found employment at the camp’s Disability Center and quickly became a leader among the Deaf Bhutanese.

Part 3: America

Bhawani and his family made the journey to the utterly foreign and bewildering United States. The resettlement agency was ill-equipped to support him and other Deaf refugees and did not provide interpreters so he could participate in their programs. Unable to communicate once again, and excluded from accessing services such as cultural orientation, Bhawani and his wife Damanta stagnated at home for months until they were finally able to access ASL instruction.

Bhawani’s circle expanded as he learned ASL and was better able to communicate and make connections. There were many other Deaf refugees in the community: deafness is common in Nepal and Bhutan. Bhawani gathered them together and started an ASL class with cultural orientation, bus training, banking, and other information they had missed. Bhawani encountered obstacle after obstacle as he tried to find support for members of his community. 

Bhawani and the other Deaf refugees grappled with the system of medical care in America as they coped with medical insurance, appointments, interpreting, and transportation. Traditional methods of providing communication access for Deaf people did not work well for the Deaf Bhutanese since they did not use ASL, and cultural differences compounded the difficulties with communication. Bhawani began volunteering to interpret from American to Nepali sign language for the others in his community, eventually getting paid for his valuable services. 

Bhawani led the community of Deaf Bhutanese out of isolation and into the life of the Concord community as they acquired self-confidence, language skills, and competence in life activities. Bhawani has made connections with other Deaf Bhutanese around the country, found similar problems in many communities, and works to improve the circumstances of Deaf refugees everywhere. 
Bhawani’s story exposes the failures of the American refugee resettlement system to provide equal access and accommodations for their Deaf clients and people with disabilities. It shows the gaps in Deaf services that hinder their ability to become productive, contributing citizens. Finally, it points to the need for improvement in existing Deaf and interpreting services so they better meet the needs of an increasingly diverse community.

Bhawani and Damanta smiling and waving American flags after becoming  American citizens.
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